Remembering the victims - including infants - of 1950s Stalinist terror

Ceremony at Prague's Ďáblice Cemetery, photo: Rob Cameron

A ceremony was held on Wednesday at Prague's Ďáblice Cemetery to remember those killed or incarcerated by Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Organised by the Confederation of Former Political Prisoners, it was attended by a number of political and religious leaders, who warned that many Czechs were succumbing to a dangerous form of political amnesia.

Ceremony at Prague's Ďáblice Cemetery, photo: Rob Cameron
A military brass band played Chopin’s funeral march as dignitaries filed up to a small monument – flanked by Czech soldiers bearing arms – to the hundreds of Czechoslovaks shot, tortured or starved to death by the regime during the Stalinist excesses of the 1950s.

This leafy cemetery on the northern outskirts of Prague is where the regime buried its victims, their bodies thrown into unmarked, mass graves, usually without notifying their families. Ďáblice Cemetery is the final resting place for a number of prominent victims of communist-era oppression, including Zdena Mašínová, mother of the Mašín brothers who shot their way out of Czechoslovakia in 1953; she died in 1956 after several years of incarceration during which she was tortured and denied medical treatment by the secret police.

Zdena Mašínová junior, photo: Ben Skála, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Standing over her mother’s grave, Zdena Mašínová junior told me it was during the frantic search to find her burial place that the then 19-year-old stumbled across a horrific secret.

“They refused to tell me where she’d been buried - it wasn’t until I got a secret tip-off that they’d buried her here at Ďáblice. I rushed here as fast as I could. The person in charge brought me to this spot and told me I must never tell anyone this but she was buried in a pit containing the bodies of 32 dead children. They were babies born to female political prisoners incarcerated at Pankrác Prison. Their corpses were loaded onto trucks and brought here to Ďáblice – just loaded onto a truck, no coffins. When there weren’t enough bodies in the pit they would throw in the body of an adult prisoner. And in June 1956, that’s where my mum was buried.”

Ceremony at Prague's Ďáblice Cemetery, photo: Rob Cameron
Today the burial pits are marked with gravestones, some bearing names, others blank – the bodies have never been exhumed and in most cases identification is impossible; some of the babies were just a few days’ old. Zdena Mašínová believes there could be as many as a hundred children buried here; the youngest victims of totalitarian communism.

Jiří Linek, from the Confederation of Former Political Prisoners which organises this annual ceremony, conceded that the 1950s marked the height of oppression, but many of the methods of that oppression stayed the same throughout the communist period.

“Basically the Communists used the same methods throughout the 42 years. As a student I was arrested for taking part in anti-Russian demonstrations in 1969, because it was the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. They always behaved in the same way. There was not a big difference. There were only different shades of their brutality. The brutality throughout the regime was just the same. Therefore the Communist Party shouldn’t exist in our democratic system. All we are doing is taking a fifth column into our democratic system. That’s my opinion.”

Thursday marks the 63rd anniversary of the execution by hanging of Milada Horáková, the democratic MP sentenced to death in a show trial. Speakers at the event said her death – and the deaths of all the regime’s victims – should never be forgotten. They should, they said, serve as a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the freedoms most Czechs today take for granted.